Why hand pumps are not sustainable

Numbers do not lie and every statistic has a face.

What do you think the definition of insanity is?

To answer this question in relation to hand pumps we have to determine what is insane about the continuous use of hand pumps to solve the water crisis in the world.Yes, hand pumps are not sustainable and somebody has got to say it!

Asheim defined sustainable development as development that ensures a continuous increased/improved quality of life. And you would be right to think that hand pumps do this very well. I agree but for how long? According to WHO/UNICEF lack of continuous safe drinking water can contribute to increased morbidity and mortality among children under 5. More than 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to drinking water. Majority of those who enjoy access to water rely on wells/boreholes with hand pumps. Although the number of hand pumps in Africa is unknown, estimates show that 60,000 hand pumps will be installed in Africa annually. These are usually communal sources of water because they have a larger impact on the community. So when they fail, they alter the quality of life for the community as a whole.

Functionality is defined as the lack of water when the pump handle is pushed down. Basically, it’s not doing its job. Bertram et al (2015) found out that the functionality prevalence of installed hand pumps in Sub-Saharan Africa is 50-67%. Meaning that half of 60,000 hand pumps or less, installed yearly will not be functional. This is akin to saying that for every £1 spent on water by charitable organizations, 50p is wasted. To the person who gave to the water cause, half of your money is going down the drain, to the children who are affected by the water crisis, broken pumps become broken dreams.

How do I know this? I am that child in Africa that did the water walk.

Although, I have Masters in Sustainable Energy Engineering from University of Nottingham now, mine is not an academic perspective, this is a personal, lived perspective. For years I have watched, the cycle of broken pumps render children hopeless because they have to give up education in search of water. Broken pumps are broken dreams. One pump has a communal impact, so when half of them break down the impact is in the order of 300,000 assuming 100 people per pump. If a hand pump breaks down after one year, it is not sustainable.

I also understand that many organizations have limited resources and as such choose the hand pump over any other solutions. Here are the reasons why:

  • Hand pumps are cheap- They are mechanical and can be fabricated in any developing country.

  • Hand pumps are easy to repair once you have a maintenance provision factored in

However, the hand pump has cons that make it expensive long term.

  • It is not easy to use: You need human power to keep pumping water. This limits the water capacity fetched and functions the water can be used for (e.g. farming) as well as who can fetch water.

  • A mechanical pump has immense wear and teardue to friction when it goes through vertical displacement. This means it breaks down faster and has a maintenance cost associated with it for continuous functionality to be possible.

  • Chemical and biological degradation renders drinking water unsafe.

  • It has limited head since it is a suction surface pump. Once water levels go down, the pump cannot bring water to the surface even if its functionality is not compromised.

Should we keep installing hand pumps when they break down and the problem keeps recurring? From a social perspective, women are often charged with fetching water among other household chores. As a result, they have to operate the pump more often than not. There is also a lack of funds for most communities to meet the maintenance cost. The pump breaks down and the problem recurs.This is the antithesis of sustainability.

The only way to solve the water crisis sustainably (2030)is by solving it once and for all. We have admired this problem for too long. Shouldn’t we design water solutions with sustainability in mind to begin with? Think solar water pumps!

Do not hesitate to contact us to discuss a possible project or learn more about our  work.
Ingenuity Lab, Ingenuity Centre
University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2TU
EMAIL: tabitha.wacera@sustainablewaterswp.com